Smashing the Crystal Ball: Talking with Teens About the Jewish Future

by Beth Cooper Benjamin EdD and Adam Gaynor

Central to our work – Adam’s with The Curriculum Initiative and Beth’s with Ma’yan – is a commitment to creating spaces and opportunities for Jewish youth to speak from their own experience about issues and policies that affect them. So when we were invited to convene a panel of high school and college students to speak about the Jewish future at the Judaism2030 Conference, we were psyched.

Based on our own experiences working with and studying Jewish youth, we had some hunches about what they might have to say, about what they might include and exclude if they were to build a future Jewish community that would feel like home to them. And we were curious whether some of the ideas and perspectives we’ve heard in our work with Jewish teens would come through in their responses to the questions we were preparing. Among other things, we wondered:

  1. Would it make sense to Jewish teens to envision a Jewish future distinct from a broader or collective future?
  2. Would teens view Jewish identity as something separate and apart from (in tension with) the other identities they encounter and inhabit: race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, geography, socioeconomic status, etc.?
  3. Would they endorse the prevailing model of Jewish teen programming, the notion that separating Jewish youth from their non-Jewish peers is necessary and valuable for building Jewish identity? Might they experience themselves as Jewish in different and meaningful ways when non-Jewish peers are present?
  4. How would they view Jewish adults’ expectations for them – of the “Jewish presents” definition of what it means to be Jewish, or to be a good Jew, or to have a strong Jewish identity? How would their own definitions differ?

Wait a minute, though: wasn’t this supposed to be about giving the teens space to define and articulate their experience for themselves? Even with the best intentions, it’s easy to fall back into putting our own perspective first. Working collaboratively with youth inevitably involves some complex power-sharing and negotiation, and requires some discipline on our part to privilege their voices and perspectives over our own. Ideally, the panel would have been designed with the teens’ participation from start to finish. In this case, given the logistical challenges of arranging a diverse group of Jewish teens to gather in New York City, on a school day, we compromised: we developed an outline based upon the “Judaism2030” theme and our observations as educators, then held a conference call with our teen panelists so we could make revisions based on their feedback.

Given the nature of the conference, the panel will likely be a conversation between teenagers and established professionals. Thus, our initial idea was to have the teens reflect on inter- generational challenges such as the differences between adults’ expectations and teens’ lived experiences. As self-confessed pop culture junkies, we decided to introduce the panel using selected clips from the TV show “Glee” as a prompt. For the uninitiated, Glee is both a hit with teen audiences and also – as one of our teen panelists noted during the conference call – a rarity in TV-land as it explicitly and frequently explores themes related to Jewish teen experience and identity. The clips we selected show a teen contending with a parent’s expectations about what it means to be a “good Jew.” Two responses from our panelists came as instructive surprises. First, it turns out that Glee is not universally beloved by teen audiences. Oh well. Second, and more important, one of our participants commented that while she recognizes pressure to conform to a Jewish norm, she perceives this pressure as coming primarily from her peers, many of whom don’t even “see” her as Jewish because of her cultural and family history. If there’s one thing we have successfully transmitted from generation to generation, it is that Jewish identity continues to be a contested topic.

We have entitled our session, “Smashing the Crystal Ball,” hoping to dispense with any fantasy that these Jewish youth have psychic powers to predict a monolithic future for the Jewish community. Similarly, writing this column ahead of the Judaism2030 conference, we can’t predict exactly how our conversation with this group of Jewish youth will unfold. But the experience has already reinforced for us something about the process of working with teens that we feel is crucial for Jewish professionals, educators, parents, and funders to understand. We might have experience and even wisdom on our side, but adult expertise is simply not a reasonable substitute or stand-in for the voices of young people themselves. Building a Jewish future that these teens will want to join (and ultimately, hopefully, to lead) demands that we step back and give them the space to define their own experience and priorities, even – and perhaps especially – if their vision for the future is very different from our own.

Beth Cooper Benjamin, Ed.D., is Director of Research at Ma’yan, a Program of The JCC in Manhattan. Adam Gaynor is Executive Director of The Curriculum Initiative (TCI) and a doctoral student in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU.

This article is from a series prepared by presenters at Judaism2030: A Working Conference for a Vibrant Jewish Future.